Humans took 200,000 years to invent the electric light fixture, but you can learn how one works in the time it takes to read these bullet points:
- Your power supply comes through fuse board or consumer unit to (usually) two circuits – one for upstairs and one for downstairs.
- With brown for live, blue for neutral, and green/yellow for earth, wiring runs from power source to a series of lighting points, then splits off to separate switches.
- Wall-mounted switches open and close the circuit. Smaller lights generally use sockets, which also open and close circuits to control the flow of electricity.
- Electricity runs through the bulb to create light, passing through a filament (incandescent), electrodes surrounded by certain gases (halogen, neon, CFS), or a semiconductor (LEDs).
That’s the basics down, but what really matters is how you can use those fittings to showcase your home in its best light and ensure agreeable visibility whether putting on makeup in your bathroom mirror or cutting up carrots for supper.
The difference between chandelier and standing lamp? Piece of cake. Knowing what separates accent lighting from ambient or the finer points of HID bulbs vs. halogen bulbs? Now we’re getting into trickier territory.
No matter – you just need the right map. To get yourself from in the dark to utterly illuminated, we’ve broken down everything you need to know about household lighting into quick and easy bitesize chunks.
From types of light, bulb, and switch to options by room and an overview of noted brand leaders, you’ll finish up with a detailed understanding of just how to light your home.
Types of Light Fixtures & Fittings
The type of light fitting and fixture you choose is going to impact everything from overall visibility to overall style. To make the right choice, you need to understand exactly what’s out there.
Freestanding Light Fixtures
- Table Lamps: Go-to guys for secondary lighting, table lamps are essentially back-up for your main lights. Perfect for task lighting across a desk, a convenient light source on your bedside table, or a way to create a more intimate atmosphere in your lounge, they’re also a perfect way to freshen up your décor.
- Floor Lamps: The taller sister of the table lamp can brighten up dark or forgotten corners in more ways than one. Filling a generous portion of vertical space lets them act more as decorative items in their own right, making them ideal for areas that feel a little sparse – at the same time, they keep their nooks and crannies free from shadows. Of course, they’ll also cast welcome pools of light for a well-lit read from the comfort of your favourite armchair.
- Balanced Arm Lamp: Defined by their adjustable folding arms and perfected by the classic Anglepoise line, you can consider balanced arm lamps as table lamps with greater purpose in life. Practicality is the name of the game, with the directional head casting clear, direct light over working surfaces. Beyond their function-focused nature, balanced arm lamps nicely complement a retro or ultra-modern aesthetic.
- Gooseneck Arm Lamp: A little more casual than the balanced arm, gooseneck arm lamps can be directed hither and thither at will using an adjustable shaft. Available as freestanding table lamps or wall-mounted, goosenecks deliver spotlighting that can be shifted in seconds without introducing the complexity of a balanced arm. As a general rule of thumb, they tend to be a little cheaper – could be a good choice for children’s room or occasional study.
- Nightlight: Stalwart guardian against boogeymen and things that go bump in the night, the nightlight casts a comforting glow of constant twilight. Though clearly no stranger to children’s bedrooms, and with plenty of kid-themed designs as a result, nightlights can also serve practical purpose by preventing pitch dark accidents.
Fixed Light Fixtures
- Ceiling Dome (Open and Enclosed): Sometimes known as pendant lamps, domes hang down from the ceiling, providing a focal point for the room and casting a large amount of light from one or two central areas. You’ll commonly use just one in a smaller room, such as a dining room, or one or two across a larger room, such as a living room. Essentially a modern dressed-down version of the traditional chandelier, ceiling domes can be open, with the bulb exposed, or enclosed, with the bulb sheltered to provide softer illumination.
- Recessed Light: Discrete, clean, and contemporary, recessed lights are the seen-but-not-heard of the lighting world. Built into the ceiling, they maintain a neutral tone to decorate around and work well in groups to provide even illumination across larger rooms without one central focal point. Turn to recessed lighting when you want your décor to speak for itself.
- Surface-Mounted: Less conspicuous than ceiling domes and yet more noticeable than recessed, surface-mounted lights are something of a hybrid option. Installed flat across the ceiling, surface-mounted lights can be relatively small or span wide areas. Exposed edges provide a way to bring a dash of extra styling. In a modern bathroom, try chrome. For a traditional kitchen, edge with wood.
- Outdoor Lighting: From much-needed illumination when exiting or entering to much-desired lighting for late night get-togethers in the garden, outdoor lighting covers a lot of ground, and you’ll find plenty of styles available. For an inviting aspect, it’s hard to hold a candle to the lantern-style bracket, while flush-fitted wall lights make sense in narrower areas.
Special Purpose Lighting
- Accent Light: Used to draw deliberate attention to certain items or areas, accent lighting layers in additional texture, shape, focus, and depth. Unlike task lighting, which aims to illuminate for a practical purpose, accent lighting is more aesthetic, using spotlights, downlights, uplights, and tracks to add an extra dimension.
- Background Light: ‘Background light’ is a slightly misleading term – in a sense, it forms the bedrock of your lighting. Background lighting acts as a stand-in for daylight. Think central light with undramatic yet far-reaching effect. Think unlikely to make a room standout, but the blank canvas for those lighting effects that do.
- Black Light: Emitting mostly long-wave ultraviolet light instead of visible light, the black light can bring a sense of psychedelic chic. In the home, they’re usually needed where low-level lighting is desired. Let’s say you have a home cinema – adding black lights would light the way without disrupting the show.
- Christmas Lighting: The untangling season comes but once a year. Christmas lights are fun, festive, but not particularly long-lasting or bright. Try looking for sets with independent circuits to prevent the failure of one bulb bringing down the entire length.
- Flood Lights: Steadily penetrating the residential market as well as the world of business, floodlights blanket a set area with clear, bright illumination to help keep intruders at bay. Nine times out of ten, the home flood light is going to be activated by movement, but you can certainly pick up a model that responds to the flick of a switch instead.
Lighting for Specific Rooms
There’s no cut and dry approach to every room in the house, but certain spaces possess their own special characteristics that you can use to determine the best lighting style. Let’s break things down on a room-by-room basis.
More in sync with the sun than other rooms, the bedroom needs little in the way of harsh lighting, especially when you’re using it for more amorous activities than getting forty winks. Keep things soft with a single shaded ceiling lamp, with table lamps on your bedside unit so you can blanket the room in darkness or summon up light after a bad dream simply by reaching over and flipping a switch.
One of the smallest rooms in the house, but one of the toughest to light. Bathrooms demand bright, clear light when you’re preparing yourself in the morning, then relaxing ambience when you destress after a long day. And from chandelier to strip light, everything needs to be strictly in line with electrical regulations. Bathroom lighting is all about layering. An enclosed dome light or several recessed lights should be used for primary illumination, then wall-mounted lights can be fitted around mirrors to ensure superior visibility where you need it most. When you want to chill in the warmth, using accent lighting alone can foster the desired atmosphere.
Social-hub, food prep area, entertaining space, and possibly your main dining room – the kitchen wears a whole lotta hats. Take your cues from the bathroom and embrace layered lighting. Recessed or surface-mounted lights are ideal for casting an even glow across the length and breadth of the room, and task-oriented downlights can bring faultless visibility to your cooking surfaces. Take pains to resist going too bright with any one light – kitchens are home to more and their fair share of reflective surfaces, so glare can be an unexpected problem.
Living Room Lighting
Let’s forget about task lighting and relax in the living room. A couple of ceiling dome lights will create a welcoming atmosphere, and here’s where you want to break out your cool new table lamps and floor lamps. If leisure time means curling up with a book, source yourself a floor lamp with directional head to help light up the world you fall into.
The tight-buttoned opposite number of your living room, the house study is a task-oriented nook that demands task-oriented lighting. The balanced arm and gooseneck arm lights you loved reading about just above? Here is where you break them out to best effect, along with some simple ceiling lights to provide overall illumination. There’s nothing wrong with adding a bit of style, but maintaining a focus on functionality is going to help you craft a model working area.
It’s easy to say that playroom lighting should engage the imagination and nurture creativity, and you’ll find plenty of child-themed lights that can do just that. Wonderful, but don’t forget to take care of the basics. Every light in the playroom needs the latest safety features, solid construction, and a bulb that doesn’t burn hot as well as burn bright – LED bulbs are a bit of a no-brainer.
If it’s going outside, it needs to be both durable and waterproof. Outdoor lighting options run the gamut from ultra-modern to traditionally-inspired. As a basic rule, the latter will be more ornate and usually wall-mounted – think projecting electric lamps with a lantern-style appearance. Going modern is a great opportunity to break out recessed floor lights and small spotlights – up-lighting keeps lighting soft and casual, all while highlighting homegrown flora.
Types of Bulbs
The style of fitting you choose is really a secondary concern – if you get the wrong bulb, you’re already going down the wrong path. A quick overview of popular bulb types is all you need, so let’s get cracking.
Incandescent Bulbs: Something of an endangered species, the incandescent bulb passes electricity through a wire filament to produce light. Though increasingly marred by poor efficiency ratings, high heat outputs, and a short lifespan, it’s hard for some homeowners to resist the warm, traditional glow that they produce. Ideally matched with older designs that shun clean modern lines for richness and comfort, the incandescent bulb can be found in umpteen shapes and sizes, from candle to tubular. Of course, it’s an uphill struggle to find them in more modern configurations, such as spotlight and strip.
Fluorescent Bulbs: Those long tube lights you have beneath your kitchen cabinets? They’re probably fluorescent bulbs. Losing the filament, fluorescent bulbs combine mercury-vapor with electric current to produce light. Strip lighting has become closely associated with fluorescent bulbs, but you’ll also find them used for smaller lamps, usually with one tube in a spiral configuration. Expect energy savings over the traditional incandescent, and don’t worry about frequent replacements.
Halogen Bulbs: Sealing tungsten filament with a mixture of inert gas, including (you guessed it) halogen, these bulbs are the closest you’re going to get to the old-school incandescent. They reach peak brightness instantly, which isn’t the case with most other energy-efficient bulbs, and halogen bulbs are typically the cheapest type you can buy. Spotlights often use halogen bulbs, and the design covers most bulb types.
HID Bulbs: HID stands for High-Intensity Discharge, and these bulbs certainly live up to their name. Commonly used with off-road vehicles or large outdoor arenas, the HID is king when you extremely high levels of light must be cast across larger areas. Unless you’re redecorating your home stadium, HID bulbs are an unlikely candidate for interior lighting, but they’ll seem tailormade for your outdoor security lights.
LED Bulbs: Once shunned for slightly off-colour light, the modern LED bulb produces illumination near indistinguishable from a traditional incandescent. They do cost a little extra, but an average lifespan between 35,000 and 50,000 hours makes them a worthy investment, especially since they consume so little energy. You can use LED bulbs to good effect in all rooms, but they are particularly common in bathrooms and kitchens.
Types of Switches
‘A switch is a switch’, I hear you say? Incorrect. Pioneering products have started mingling with the established lineup, presenting more options than you’d expect as a result.
Time Delay: Linked up to a timer that can be adjusted at will by the user, time delay switches can be set to precise schedules. Lights will cycle on and off like clock-work, so these switches are often employed by people who want to give the allusion of someone being in the house when they are away on holiday. They’ll also help you get up in the morning, and setting a shut-off time helps avoid high energy costs.
Time Lag: Time lag switches are a lot simpler, usually including a timer that cannot be manually adjusted. When you hit the switch, an internal timer will start. After a certain period, the light will turn on or off. Lag switches have limited scope, but they can be excellent in children’s bedrooms, or in crowded rooms that you don’t want to navigate in the dark.
Dimmer: Dimmer switches contain a solid-state circuit, letting you adjust brightness by changing the voltage. Rarely used with lights other than ceiling-mounted, dimmers represent an ideal way to cycle between clearly lit room and a more intimate atmosphere, making them ideal for kitchen diners, dining rooms, living rooms, and bedrooms, especially children’s bedrooms.
Pull Down: Almost exclusively found in bathrooms and washrooms, the pull down switch is necessary where high levels of moisture could turn operating a normal light switch into decidedly risky business.
Sensor: Sensor switches work using the same technology employed by a motion detector, but with reduced range. Passing your hand before them serves to switch between on and off, making these an ideal choice where hygiene is an issue.
Standard: Even among this crowd of high-tech alternatives, there’s little reason to turn away from the standard switch without need. Perfect for almost any room, they serve your requirements when those requirements aren’t too niche.
Motion Detector: Security lights almost always use motion sensors, but the technology has been expanded to other areas. Though still associated with outdoor use, internal motion detector switches can be an ideal way to prevent lights being left on since they will turn on and off as you enter and exit.
Touch: Touchpad controls create a sleek, modern switch with no protruding sections, but they serve a functional purpose that goes beyond flash. Easy to adjust, touch switches are great for controlling several lights from the same controller.
3-Way 2-Circuit Switch: A common site in kitchens, the 3-way 2-circuit unites more than one switch within the same control, letting you turn sets of lights on and off at once or on and off individually. Perfect when task lighting is combined with overhead.
X10 Systems: The cutting-edge of lighting revolves around autonomous use and wireless connectivity. X10 systems link to your mains and are controlled through modules in telephones, PCs, universal transmitters, and other such systems. Optimizing everything from energy use to security, here’s hoping they’re the future. For now, their features do admittedly command a high price tag.
Light Fitting Brands
You could spend all day researching the world’s light fitting brands, but you’d probably prefer to get a quick representative breakdown of some of our favourites. No problem.
Tom Dixon: It’s to the work of self-taught designer Tom Dixon that you turn for standout designs. Incorporating retro and traditional styles, and making extensive use of brushed metals, Tom Dixon lighting offers floor, table, and pendant lights that are hard to ignore. Lucide: Adopting the same innovative design standards in a more modern, dressed-down style,
Lucide: Adopting the same innovative design standards in a more modern, dressed-down style, Lucide use simple shades and shapes in refreshing engaging ways.
Cole & Bright: Developing a sought-after selection of outdoor lighting options has placed Cole & Bright as leaders of the niche. From spotlights to stake lights, and with several solar models, make them your go-to for outdoor lighting.
Philips: You’ve already heard of Philips – they’re a global market leader. Though not quite so creative as the designers listed above, you can expect an exhaustive range, lower prices, and surprisingly high quality.
Astro: Expect an excess of brushed chrome, clouded glass, and simple shapes when you draw your lighting from Astro. For homeowners dedicated to minimal modernism, Astro is hard to rival.
Garden Lights: Like Cole & Bright, Garden Lights concern themselves with outdoor lighting, although with a focus more on function than innovation or whimsy. Hard-wearing traditional designs can help lighten up the exterior of your home.
Dar Lighting Group: Though making their name through large statement-piece light fittings, Dar Lighting also leverage their exquisite handcrafted expertise to create a broad spectrum of innovative wall lights, floor lamps, table lamps, and outdoor lights.
Searchlight: Since 1945, Searchlight has been recognised for their stunning lighting fixtures that bring a contemporary edge to timeless designs, from crystal chandeliers to ornate table lamps.
Elstead Lighting: Offering a vast selection of lighting fixtures that still feel unique and of high quality, Elstead can be trusted to deliver dependable products across numerous styles, types, and collections.
PLUMEN: Dedicated to merging eco-friendly energy use with designer looks, PLUMEN offer a wide range of bulbs, with a specialisation in modern pendant lights. Isospot: Heart set on desktop task lighting that doesn’t feel too pedestrian? You’re Isospot’s ideal customer. Their sharp desk lights add a dash of intrigue to your working area.